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October 14, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Punting Home Runs, Winning RBIs

by Jason Collette

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I pointed this out last week in Fred Zinkie’s interview how he finished 14th in the 15-team Tout Wars Mixed league yet finished 2nd in the RBI category and how improbable that seemed.  The next logical step is to figure out how one does that and what is needed to pull that kind of feat off.

Luckily our stat-engine has just such the report: the RBI Opportunity Report. That report has everything—the number of plate appearances a player has with runners on base, on which base they were on, how many runners besides himself the batter drove in, and where he drove them in from.  We know from the somewhat similar situational hitting report that Baseball-Reference generates that the league average per 600 plate appearances is as follows:

  • Runners on base: 363
  • Percentage of runners on base driven in by the hitter: 14%
  • Runners who score based off the ball in play: 51

Knowing those baseline numbers, a look back at 2011 to see which batters exceeded and fell short of those benchmarks can help us learn how Zinkie and other teams like him were able to exceed in the RBI category without relying upon home runs to do so.  First off, let’s look at the hitters who had plenty of opportunities to drive in runs in 2011.

There were 72 hitters that had at least 363 batters on base in 2011, led by Adrian Gonzalez who had 486 runners on base during his plate appearances and finished off by both Jason Bay and Carl Crawford who had 364 runners on base during their plate appearances.  That group represents 37 percent of the 193 batters that had at least 400 plate appearances this past season.  Only 33 (17 percent) of the 72 hitters had at least 400 runners on base during their plate appearances, but 21 of the 33 batters were in the American League.

 Some of the names that were below the 363 threshold this season include Justin Upton, Michael Morse, Josh Hamilton, Carlos Gonzalez, Nelson Cruz, Adam Dunn, Andre Ethier, Martin Prado, Brian McCann, and Matt Wieters. Most of those names were drafted with the expectation that they would be able to drive in runs from the middle of their respective lineups, but for a variety of reasons including injury, poor performance of teammates, or their own poor performance, they did not see even league average opportunities.

The league average for driving in runners anywhere on base was 14 percent last season, and 137 batters with at least 300 plate appearances were able to reach that benchmark in 2011. The leader in the National League was Ryan Braun, who drove in 21.2 percent of the runners on base during his plate appearances. Braun also led all of baseball with that rate while Michael Young led the American League, driving in 21.1 percent of the runners on base in front of him. Speaking of Texas, Young, Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, and Nelson Cruz all drove in at least 18.1 percent of the batters on base when they were hitting; now imagine how scary the Rangers’ offensive numbers would have been this season had the latter three hitters not each spent time on the disabled list.

The disabled list also thwarted Travis Hafner, who was the 12th most efficient hitter at 18.7 percent while his teammate, Matt LaPorta, was the fifth most productive, driving in 20.3 percent of the runners in front of him despite having a very disappointing season.  LaPorta’s slash line of .247/.299/.412 is terribly disappointing for a first baseman, but he did drive in runs at a higher rate than any first baseman in baseball last season, giving more fuel to the “RBI is an overrated statistic” debate.  That said, you obviously have to be careful how you use this particular benchmark because all percentages are not created equal. For example, both David Ortiz and Matt Joyce drove in 15.1 percent of their batters in 2011 yet Ortiz had 21 more runs driven in than Joyce. The stat does not include home runs, and Ortiz hit ten more home runs than Joyce did this season, but the 11 RBI difference between the two was helped with the fact that Ortiz had 29 more plate appearances with runners on base than Joyce did and that Ortiz had 66 more runners on base than Joyce did over the course of a season. 

Hitters that came in below the 14 percent threshold include Vernon Wells, Michael Cuddyer (whose RBI totals have dropped three straight seasons), Corey Hart, Carlos Pena, Carlos Santana, Jason Bay,  Geovany Soto, Chase Utley, Dan Uggla, Jayson Werth, and Adam Dunn.

The last measure, others batted in (OBI), measures how many runners scored as a result of the ball in play—easily calculated by subtracting one’s home run total from their RBI total. Nobody in baseball was better than Michael Young at doing this as he drove in 96 other runs this season while four other American League hitters followed him in Victor Martinez (91), Robinson Cano (90), and Adrian Gonzalez (90). Matt Kemp led the National League with 89, followed by Ryan Howard at 83, Prince Fielder at 82, and Ryan Braun at 80.

In all, just 83 batters in baseball drove in at least 51 other hitters (excluding their own runs on homers), with Hunter Pence, Carlos Beltran, and Cuddyer rounding out the list right at the league average of 51. It would likely surprise you that Carlos Lee had a higher OBI total this season than did Joey Votto, Miguel Cabrera, Paul Konerko, and Evan Longoria, just to name a few notables.  It might not surprise you that David Wright drove in fewer other runners than Angel Pagan did or that Justin Turner drove in fewer other runners than Jason Bay did. Are we beginning to see the Mets’ problems?

If you are going to spend time surfing through the data in the RBI opportunities report, take the time to go back and look at previous seasons because one year results can result in some selectivity bias which can mislead you into false expectations.  After all, Nolan Reimold drove in the fifth highest percentage of runners from first base in a season in which he hit .247/.328/.453, and that percentage was better than what Jose Bautista did this season. The point of this exercise is that if you are going to go cheap on power in your draft and try to max out the other scoring categories, you need to know which hitters do more run production with less power production. Michael Young is the obvious one, but Carlos Lee is still driving in a lot of runs for a bad Astros team despite his declining power.

Jason Collette is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Matt Joyce

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